Are low-density cities and fiercely protected private spaces helping or harming our mental health?
This post was published in July 2018.
Our towns and cities are lacking something important, and I was reminded of this during a recent visit to Hong Kong.
There, senior citizens fill the social niche that teenagers do in Auckland. They loiter in the local square with their mates, laughing raucously. When they exercise in the park, their music precedes them, emanating from tiny boom-boxes clipped to their backpacks. Each morning, I woke to their voices chatting in the street, three stories below, over their first cigarette of the day.
This is a city New Zealanders like feeling superior to. “We don’t want to turn into Hong Kong,” we say, worried about intensified housing.
But Hong Kong has something we don’t. It has elderly people hanging out in public, everywhere you look. Its residential areas are packed with spaces for people to meet, gather, and linger – squares, plazas, tea-houses, corner stores, tiny parks, giant parks, streetside seats – while ours are not. And we suffer for it.
Ray Oldenburg, an American sociologist, first noticed these places in the 1970s. Or rather, he noticed that European cities had them, and American cities didn’t. He named them ‘third places’, because your first place is your home, and your second is your workplace, but your third place is where you relax in public, where you encounter familiar faces and make new acquaintances. These places are cheap or free. They’re open to people from all walks of life.
New Zealand has a great third place – the outdoors. My favourite third place is a DOC hut, any of them – the one space in the country where anyone is up for a yarn. But I can’t stop in at a DOC hut on my way home from work, and neither can the other 86 per cent of New Zealanders who live in urban centres. Reading Oldenburg’s book, The Great Good Place, I began to wish for an urban equivalent.
“A community life can exist when one can go daily to a given location at a given time and see many of the people one knows,” writes another American sociologist, Philip Slater, author of a book on loneliness.
When a city has lovely spaces for people for people to stroll in, or loiter, or meet friends – and importantly for our senior citizens, when these places are close to home – then the requirement for one’s house to be large and nice enough for entertaining is lessened. And when you have places to meet your neighbours by chance, you can get to know them without the pressure of inviting them over. Oldenburg describes third places as neutral ground: no one has to play host and everyone is at ease.
“If there is no neutral ground in the neighbourhoods where people live, association outside the home will be impoverished,” he writes. “Many, perhaps most, neighbours will never meet, to say nothing of associate, for there is no place for them to do so.”
Why is all of this important? Because a third of us said we were lonely in the 2014 census, and one in five of us will seek treatment this year for depression or anxiety. And because our cities aren’t bolstering one of the most significant aspects of mental health: a sense of community.
Yet we blame this lack of community upon ourselves – we haven’t tried hard enough to build it – when the problem is in fact the lack of a venue for this to take place. It’s akin to wondering why no one plays pick-up basketball when there’s no court, hoop or ball.
As we rapidly expand our cities, as we solve our housing crises, we have the chance to correct this. We could shift away from the prioritisation of cars as a method of transport, and make our streets places for strolls and encounters. That means living a little closer together, placing useful things within walking distance, perhaps forgoing individual parcels of lawn for large, shared parks. When our third places are a drive away, elderly people are fastened in retirement villages, and teenagers stuck in suburbia.
We could treat the city as our living room, kitchen, dining room, back garden and sunny deck. We could value connection over privacy.
This editorial first appeared in the July/August 2018 issue of NZ Geographic.